Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 07, 2021 7:57 pm 
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The intense, illicit world of a ski coach and the teen girl star he loves too well

This compact little film is good at focusing on its 15-year-old girl ski trainee Lyz (Noée Abita), who's completely in thrall to her verbally abusive, soon-to-be sexually abusive coach, Fred (Jérémie Renier, the Dardennes brothers' once blond and youthful darling, gnarly and unrecognizable here but as intense as ever). He is very mean to her verbally, but then she wins and he's grudgingly approving, and she's hooked: the win is a high in itself. And how could she do it without him, since he is the linchpin of the framework of training and competition that enables the wins, and could lead on to the Olympics, from what he says?

The film smoothly intensifies its focus, as Fred isolates Lyz. Her emotionally rather distant or at least very retrained mother (Muriel Combeau) is already away in Marseille for a job, leaving Lyz to fend for herself at home. Now Fred removes Lyz's teammate and friend Justine (Maïra Schmitt). Then he gives her special favors, top of the line skis from a sponsor, with his wife Lilou (Marie Denarnaud) standing approvingly by. Then Lyz wins big - champion of France - and Fred is ecstatic, and the real abuse begins, the sexual inappropriateness. Lyz turns on the boys on the team too, it's worth noting; but they haven't the access Fred has, and don't matter. She is inexperienced, ignorant of sex, even about her period. When Fred speaks to her intimately and helpfully about that, he takes the place of her mother. Better wi-fi for homework consultations as the excuse, Fred moves Lyz into his house.

As they become more intimate - and this is the film's subtlety and balance - Fred becomes more vulnerable, admitting in a key scene that his own ski career would up a total failure due to injuries and he had nothing. "Nothing?" "There's you." So in a way she means everything to him, too, as he dominates her world, and this is almost as much a secret love affair as it is hidden abuse, not that it doesn't remain abuse. It's complicated, okay? And lest that seem a copout, consider this: such complexity, and the frank details, along with the authentic settings in the French Alps and above all the high caliber of the cast, especially Abita and Renier, are all things that make this much more than a TV movie, even if its trajectory is predictable. About that, Jordan Mintzer in his Hollywood Reporter review suggests (as can be said of the greatest classic stories) that it's not the what but the how of the telling that counts here. But one can also say as Peter Bradshaw does in his Guardian review, that this film ends its story too soon and doesn't fill in enough background (what happens to Fred, and how many teen girl ski protégés has he gotten intimate with before?). There are some quibbles. The final moments seems like a scene from a movie, not from the real life of a top athlete. Perhaps the director, who says this is based on personal experience, had gone as far as she could bear. But much of this film works well, and this is a strong debut feature for Favier on a timely topic.

Slalom, 92 mins., was a Cannes 2020 official selection, and debuted at Angoulême, included in seven other festivals in both Europe and Asia. A Kino Lorber release in the US, it was screened for this review at home as part of the all-virtual FLC-UniFrance 2021 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on Mar. 7, 2021.

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